When I first arrived here, Señor Tino told me about the fisherman's lore of Old Tom, similar to our Sasquatch, a fish so big it could swallow you whole. The real Old Tom of Utila is the whale shark, a regular visitor to the warm waters between Utila and Roatan. I joked that I would not leave until I swam with one myself, but I knew it could take many years and hours logged on the water before our paths would cross.
Yesterday was our beloved Cherry's birthday, and as we set out with our friend Brad on a lap around the island, fishing lines out in hopes of catching dinner, I whispered a little wish to the world--that she might send up some whale sharks, or at least a dolphin or two.
We had loaded up with gas and a cooler full of junky snacks, Gatorade, water and beer at Bush's Supermercado and set out to the East around Tradewinds. The kids binged on Pringles and Doritos, and as the fishing lines remained slack, the mood deteriorated. The effects of copious amounts of MSG and red dye number five were obvious in the behavior of the niños. J asked if I had picked up any bananas at the store.
"No, only plums," I said, confused, and they explained the fisherman's curse.
No bananas on the boat, and still no fish. We traveled out to the banks, eyes scanning the horizon for a bait boil or a cluster of birds, both things that indicate the same fish that draw the whale shark. We looked for other dive boats, or the spinner dolphins J swam with on his last trip.
At last, a boat pulled up alongside, and asked if we had snorkel equipment on board, and told us to follow them--they had spotted a whale shark! We lay flat on the bow while Brad gunned it, my heart racing, tossing equipment to each kid, tucking hair out of masks. I have often wondered if I would be afraid to drop in with a whale shark, the largest fish in the world. We are not on their menu, but imagine encountering a shark the size of a school bus out in the deep blue ocean.
When the moment came, we cut our engine behind the other boat and there was no time for hesitation. I saw the massive fin slice the water in the midst of the fish boil. Twenty yards ahead, I could see a dark shape near the surface and I dropped in with my children. The water was true blue--visibility littered with particulate, no sight of the deep bottom to ground myself. Holding Piper's hand, hearing my own shallow breath through my snorkel, we swam right toward him.
I expected some hesitation from Piper, who is only five, or at least some frantic squeezing of our clutched hands, as my sister and I did when we went on a shark dive in Fiji.
Nothing. Piper wasn't even breathing hard. Old Tom passed close enough that we could touch him. (We didn't--it's not allowed.) Piper neither pursued nor hung back--she stood her ground, tread water, and turned and waited peacefully for his next pass.
Hayden free dove down and swam close for video footage with our go-pro camera, and then made a beeline for the surface when his swooshing tail passed within inches of him.
This shark was curious, making several close passes, staying close to the surface with us. We made eye contact. Occasionally, he would disappear down into the depths below us. J, an excellent free diver, swam down sixty feet and said he could see him at about a hundred feet. Then he would turn and open his mouth, a six foot wide gaping slot, and swim straight up to the surface where we bobbed and waited, feeding on the bait fish, appearing out of the navy blue abyss.
He stayed for twenty minutes, visiting and passing close, diving down and surfacing. In hindsight, I wish we had been better at documenting this experience (half the video is shot with the camera upside down) but we also knew that for our first time, it was more important to just be present, because whatever we took home wouldn't come close to capturing the magnificence we felt.
I have some video to post later, when I edit it, but trust me, it doesn't even come close to showing how breathtaking, how awe-inspiring it felt to be so close to these creatures.
When this one dove, and didn't come back to the surface, we retrieved the boat we had abandoned with the help of the friends who had tipped us off. We sat in a kind of quiet awe, unable to believe what we had just done and seen.
Over the next hour, we found two more whale sharks. Both were bigger than the first one (who was maybe 25 feet?) and one was almost double his size, but neither wanted anything to do with us. We would approach the boil in the very center of the jumping tuna, and we'd see a magnificent black tail fin, and a dark shape underwater double the size of our boat. I asked once, as I tugged my mask strap over my head, if we were sure these were whale sharks? It could be anything big feeding here--orcas, tiger sharks, something a little more interested in swimmers bobbing in the middle of a bait ball.
But whenever we slipped into the ocean, we'd catch a glimpse of another Old Tom before they disappeared into the depths.
We left them to feed in peace and continued around the island to a remote beach, accessible only by boat. We snorkeled the shallows and collected puka shells, and came across an octopus eating a crab. We ate granola bars and had a beer in the shade of the casuarinas, until the slant of the sun meant we needed to finish our loop around the island.
As we came up on the Cays, we passed Raggedy Cay, the bird sanctuary, surrounded by frigate birds, egrets and terns.
Our fishing lines still slack, we squinted into the sunglare on the water--there was activity up ahead. A bait boil? Another whale shark?
This time, it was a giddy pod of spinner dolphins, who came to play along the bow of our boat. We flattened along the bow, and they pulsed in the wake, turning their eyes up to look at us through the foam, a mother and a baby, close enough to touch, while all around the boat, the others leapt and played.
We could hear their whistles and clicks, and on the surface, Piper's delighted squeals. DOLPHINS! WHALE SHARKS!
We reveled in our good fortune, the strange euphoria of swimming with such a rare and stunning creature, and the friendly curiosity of the dolphins...
We didn't catch anything for dinner, but we came home with fish stories to spare.
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